Twitter ex-employees accused of spying on Saudi dissidents

Federal prosecutors have filed charges against two former Twitter employees, who are accused of working on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to access account information of dissidents.

Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah each worked for the company from 2013 to 2015. The complaint alleges that Alzabarah, a site reliability engineer, improperly accessed the data of more than 6,000 Twitter users.

Abouammo, who handled media partnerships for the Middle East region, is alleged to have received $300,000 from a Saudi official as well as a Hublot watch, valued at least at $20,000. Abouammo is accused of repeatedly accessing the private information of a prominent critic of the Saudi government, including an email address and phone number.

Even after leaving the company, Abouammo allegedly contacted friends at Twitter to facilitate Saudi government requests, such as for account verification and to shutter accounts that had violated the terms of service. Abouammo, an American citizen, was recently arrested in Washington state.

Both men are accused of failing to disclose their work on behalf of a foreign government. Abouammo is also charged with falsifying a record to impede an investigation. According to an affidavit, he gave the FBI a phony invoice in an effort to explain the payments he had received from the Saudi official.

Alzabarah is also accused of accessing the prominent dissident’s account information, including his IP address. The dissident ultimately filed a formal complaint with Twitter in September 2015, alleging that his account had been hacked.

On Dec. 2, 2015, Twitter confronted Alzabarah about his improper accessing of user information. According to the affidavit, he conceded he had accessed accounts but said he had done so out of curiosity. He was placed on leave, his laptop was confiscated, and he was escorted from the building.

FBI agents began to surveil Alzabarah, and watched him outside his home in San Bruno, Calif. Alzabarah and his wife and daughter left the country the following day, boarding a plane for Saudi Arabia, and sent an email from the plane submitting his resignation.

9 PHOTOS
President Donald Trump with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
See Gallery
President Donald Trump with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 20: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - 'BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI KINGDOM COUNCIL / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) U.S. President Donald Trump (R) poses for a photo with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (L) of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, United States. (Photo by Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center top, watches President Donald Trump, right, passing by as Brazil's President Michel Temer, left, looks on while leaders gather for the for the family photo of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center top, watches President Donald Trump, right, walk past as Brazil's President Michel Temer, left, stands by while leaders gather for the group photo at the start of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. Leaders from the Group of 20 industrialized nations are meeting in Buenos Aires for two days starting today.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, top right, watches President Donald Trump, right, walk past while leaders gather for a group photo at the start of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. Russia's President Vladimir Putin stands second from left. Brazil's President Michel Temer stands below the prince. Rwanda's President Paul Kagame stands top left. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 20: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - 'BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI KINGDOM COUNCIL / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) U.S. President Donald Trump (R) meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (L) of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, United States. (Photo by Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 20: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT - 'BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI KINGDOM COUNCIL / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) U.S. President Donald Trump (5th R) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (6th L) of Saudi Arabia hold an inter-delegation meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, United States. (Photo by Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, center, speaks while Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, left, listens during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are developing an increasingly close partnership, encompassing everything from isolating Iran to bolstering business ties beyond energy into technology, defense and entertainment. Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Bloomberg
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Alzabarah then went to work for a charitable foundation with ties to the Saudi royal family, and has not returned to the U.S. since then.

The complaint also charges a third individual, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen who worked for a social media marketing firm that worked for the Saudi royal family. Almutairi is alleged to have met Alzabarah and connected him to Saudi officials, and is also charged with failing to disclose his work for a foreign government.

In a statement, Twitter said it was grateful to the FBI and the Department of Justice for their work on the case.

“We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” the company said in a statement. “Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”

Subscribe to Variety Newsletters and Email Alerts!

Read Full Story
  • DJI27674.42-17.07-0.06%
    NASDAQ8481.3417.060.20%
  • NIKKEI 22523520.01188.170.81%
    Hang Seng27065.28138.730.52%
    DAX13283.5185.140.65%
  • USD (PER EUR)1.10-0.0023-0.21%
    USD (PER CHF)1.010.00070.07%
    JPY (PER USD)108.99-0.0630-0.06%
    GBP (PER USD)1.290.00020.02%